Producers: Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder and Jody Klein Director: Regina King Screenplay: Kemp Powers Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gillard Jr., Beau Bridges, Aaron D. Alexander, Jeremy Pope and Christopher Gorham Distributor: Amazon Studios
Adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 play and opened up to some extent for the screen by Regina King, “One Night in Miami…” is an imagined account of what might have transpired on the night of February 25, 1964, when four notable black men—Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke—met in a motel room following Clay’s winning the heavyweight championship by unexpectedly defeating Sonny Liston. While it can’t escape a feeling of staginess, the conversation about the role of African-American icons in society remains as timely now as it would have been more than half a century ago.
In 1964 all four are at turning points in their lives. Clay is about to announce his conversion to Islam, which will alter his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm has been his mentor in making the decision, but is also about to sever his ties to the Nation of Islam after discovering the secrets of its leader Elijah Muhammad’s unsavory private life. Brown has just made his first movie, and will eventually have to decide between a screen career and the NFL. And Cooke is making waves as a music mogul and recording artist.
The picture begins with a series of prologues situating each man prior to turning to their evening together. Clay (Eli Goree) loses a 1963 bout to Henry Cooper. Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) blows his first appearance at the Copacabana. Brown Aldis Hodge) has an uncomfortable conversation with a grandee (Beau Bridges) in his hometown. And Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) discusses the ramifications of his decision to split from the Nation with his concerned wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango).
The script then moves to the Liston fight, which all three other men attend, and then the motel, where Cooke arrives first, only to be accosted by Malcolm’s two attendants, imposing Brother Kareem (Lance Riddick) and enthusiastic youngster Jamaal (Christian Magby). Then the other three follow, and the conversation begins.
It contains a good deal of good-natured ribbing and recollection, but also a healthy dose of conflict. That’s mostly the result of Malcolm’s earnest belief that the others are all men who should embrace their mission to rake activist roles in promoting the cause of the black community in terms of the lives they lead and the words they speak. His tendency to declare this in sometimes harsh, critical terms leads the others to respond in kind, and his admission that he plans to split off from the Nation riles Clay, who thinks he’s being used. But over the course of the evening they recognize their commonality, warts and all, and in Cooke’s case the recollections include a flashback to a Boston gig that ended triumphantly despite some problems with the sound equipment.
But though dealing with substantive issues, the movie doesn’t descend into heavy-handed didacticism. Whenever it seems to be heading in that direction, Powers cannily switches back to the camaraderie that lightens the mood. The theme might remain how these men might best use their celebrity status to improve the lot of their admirers, but as they bicker and call out one another before laughing off their disagreements, their personalities are allowed to emerge and grow.
Naturally the lead performances have to include a strong dose of mimicry, but under King’s sensitive direction all three stars go beyond mere imitation, delving deeper into their characters. Ben-Adir captures Malcolm’s straight-arrow intensity, though the tic of pushing back his glasses is perhaps used too much. Goree expertly coveys Clay’s boyish glee and bravado. Hodge embodies Brown’s laid-back but knowing experience. And Odom convincingly portrays Cooke’s talent and his ambition. Except for Bridges, Kalukango and Magby, the supporting players haven’t much chance to shine—many just offer brief cameos as real-life figures, and some manage that better than others—but overall they do well.
The film is one of those period pieces that don’t really manage a lived-in feel: Barry Robinson’s production design looks pretty spanking new, and Tam Reiner’s cinematography is more lustrous than gritty, and can’t escape a touch of the stagebound despite the opening-up sequences. But Tariq Anwar’s trim editing keeps the talk percolating, and Terence Blanchard’s score is, as usual, excellent.
Naturally our knowledge of what the future holds for these men—in a couple of cases, imminent tragedy—adds a note of pathos to the film. But it also allows us to imagine, and savor, the friendship they enjoyed, however briefly and uncertainly, on this one night.